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Peter Sagan, from Slovakia,celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the Montreal Cycling Grand Prix, Sunday, September 15, 2013 in Montreal. (RYAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Peter Sagan, from Slovakia,celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the Montreal Cycling Grand Prix, Sunday, September 15, 2013 in Montreal. (RYAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Slovakia’s Sagan wins Montreal's cycling Grand Prix on breakaway with Canada’s Hesjedal Add to ...

Any weekend warrior who has grunted and strained up Camillien Houde Way on a bike will tell you the northeastern flank of Mount-Royal feels much steeper than it looks.

This makes it all the more impressive when you see a thundering peloton of world-class cyclists climb it at 35 kilometres an hour.

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To the thousands gathered in Jeanne-Mance Park near the start/finish line of the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal on Sunday morning that may be the main attraction: a chance to feel the star power radiated by the world’s best.

“On the downhill sections, you can hear the peloton coming like a swarm of huge bees before you see them, it’s quite a feeling, they’re going 60, 70 kilometres per hour ... it’s a wonderful show and this year we have the cream of the world tour,” said Norbert Dufour, a 64-year-old retiree who watched the race, perched on his bike, with wife Marie-France Duguay.

Wherever the tour travels it’s followed by a menagerie of food tents, hawkers of cycling gear and hordes of fresh-faced people who hand out packages of gum and sample-sized packets of rice or sunscreen – the sideshow is nearly as popular as the main event.

On the course, Slovakian superstar Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Racing) attacked on the final climb of the last lap, powering past Victoria, B.C.’s Ryder Hesjedal to take the lead, and held off his pursuers over four kilometres.

“The last lap, I felt very good. I saw other riders going too hard in the climb and I saw maybe I can try,” said Sagan, who will now turn his attention to the world championships on Sept. 29 in Italy.

Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) was cheered lustily to the line by the crowd and finished third after coming up short in a last-minute sprint with Simone Ponzi (Astana).

“This season, since abandoning the Giro and getting injured in the Tour de France, to end up third in this field and race the way I did – not just follow – I think I showed I wanted to challenge for the victory,” Hesjedal, the first Canadian to win the famed Giro d’Italia, said of his last race of the season.

The 164 cyclists who lined up to zoom around the 12.1-kilometre circuit 17 times – several, including Canadian David Veilleux, who was in his final pro race, dropped out before the end – gave the fans something to yell about.

It’s true, they’re talented, super-fit pro athletes, but the history of the sport suggests at least some of them have gained an advantage through the wonders of modern chemistry.

Among others, the field included former Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, former U.S. Postal rider Christian Vande Velde (a one-time teammate of disgraced Tour champion Lance Armstrong) and Italian rider Damiano Cunego, a past winner of the Giro – all have been banned at one point or another for doping.

Most of the team directors and top coaches in the sport have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in their racing careers. Dozens of them were in Montreal and at a race earlier in Quebec City that drew a crowd estimated at 110,000.

But anyone looking for moral outrage among the crowd, which ranged from curiosity seekers to hard-core fans, would find it a tall task.

“I don’t think anyone has very many illusions about this sport,” laughed Lysiane Ménard, 34, as she stood near the start, rocking her infant daughter back and forth in a stroller.

Ménard describes herself as a cycling neophyte, and said she was impelled to watch the event for the first time for the same reason Dufour initially was: “it’s a happening.”

Lost in all the furore over doping and its consequences for sport is the fact that a healthy proportion of fans don’t really care.

“I think people are of two minds about doping. People who know the sport know how hard it is, so maybe there’s a little bit of forgiveness there. ... Europeans know that doping has gone on forever, so it’s no big deal, I imagine the Quebecois feel the same way,” said Bill Westbrook, who made the trip from Cleveland with his son.

Westbrook was a serious cyclist in his youth – he spent a season racing in Europe in the 1980s – and said “Americans are indignant about it ... I separate the doping from the attraction.”

The Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body, insists it has made huge strides against doping and several teams have adopted a zero-tolerance approach for both their athletes and coaches.

“It would bother me if, knowing everything that we know, that it’s still going on ... it’s like anything else, it’s like all the corruption in the city contracts, if it’s exposed and then it continues, it’s hard not to get disabused,” Dufour said.

Asked if he believed that means the peloton is completely clean now, he laughed and said “No, no, no. But the testing is getting better and better, I have confidence.”

Attempts at dealing with doping, it appears, can mean more than actually stamping it out.

With a report from The Canadian Press

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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